Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state's real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake.
The account, @TEN_GOP, was enormously popular, amassing at least 136,000 followers between its creation in November 2015 and when Twitter shut it down in August, according to a snapshot of the account captured by the Internet Archive just before the account was "permanently suspended."
Some of its tweets were deliberately outrageous, the archive shows, such as one in December 2016 that claimed that unarmed black men killed by police officers deserved their fate. It also trafficked in deliberate fake news, claiming just before it was shut down that a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship parade was actually a crowd waiting to hear Donald Trump speak.
Twitter, already under fire, along with Facebook, for being slow to recognize its role in Russian election meddling, declined to comment. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company does not comment on individual accounts.
@TEN_GOP gained enough support from the far right that when it was finally shut down, commentators like Reddit’s pro-Trump r/the_donald forum expressed outrage. Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump internet activist who himself has more than 213,000 Twitter followers, questioned the action when Twitter temporarily suspended the account in July.
“Fascinating,” Posobiec told BuzzFeed News this week. “We have to learn more about their operations. It's been their tactic since the KGB in the '70s to turn Americans against one another.”
Posobiec, whose Twitter page identifies him as political director of a political action committee "dedicated to overhauling the GOP," has been a frequent and harsh critic of the various probes into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. In April, he released a video railing against the idea Russians had meddled in the election.
“The left and the mainstream media have repeated the same refrain: that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump not because any fault of her own, but that Russia meddled with the US election somehow," he said in the video, before citing a CNN poll that said 58% of Americans didn't think Russia had changed vote totals.
After speaking to BuzzFeed News, Posobiec deleted his tweets that mentioned @TEN_GOP.
The @TEN_GOP account was one of many created by Russia's Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” that devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly 100 people specifically to influencing American political sentiment. The account was first identified this week in an investigation by Russia's RBC news outlet into the troll farm's efforts to influence US politics.
That investigation documented the lengths that Russia went to in its influence campaign, including paying unsuspecting Americans to undertake activities seemingly intended to increase polarization.
The @TEN_GOP account offered a lesson in how inflammatory tweets can be used to gain followers and influence. In contrast, the actual Tennessee GOP’s Twitter account, @tngop, has only 13,400 followers, despite being the Twitter voice of the state party since 2007.
The actual Tennessee Republican Party tried unsuccessfully for months to get Twitter to shut @TEN_GOP down.
“It was in no way affiliated with our office,” Candice Dawkins, the real Tennessee Republican Party's communications director, told BuzzFeed News. “It was very misleading.”
On three separate occasions — Sept. 17, 2016, March 1, 2017, and Aug. 14, 2017 — the Tennessee GOP reported the fake account to Twitter for impersonating it, according to email correspondence that Dawkins shared with BuzzFeed News.
According to screen shots captured by the Internet Archive, the fake account did switch its Twitter profile in February from “I love God, I Love my Country” to one that admitted it wasn’t an official account: “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans. Covering breaking news, national politics, foreign policy and more. #MAGA #2A.”
It wasn’t until sometime between Aug. 18 and Aug. 25, 2017, that Twitter closed the account.
One snapshot of the account captured just before @TEN_GOP was shut down shows a pinned tweet that claimed that first lady Melania Trump had prayed at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, along with a shot at mainstream news media: “You won’t see this on CNN.”
CNN had covered her trip to Paris, including her stop at Notre Dame, though it didn’t mention her actually praying.
Kevin Collier is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Kevin Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.